A Rare Treasure?
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Cupid came to life in New York last week, or at least it seemed that way for many who heard an intriguing and exciting announcement. Just down Fifth Avenue from the Metropolitan Museum in a building housing the French Embassy Cultural Services stands a statue of Cupid, and it may have been created by the great Renaissance artist Michelangelo.
Here with us is the woman whose research revealed the Cupid’s history, Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt of the New York University Institute of Fine Arts, and our own NewsHour essayist Roger Rosenblatt. Thank you for being with us.
KATHLEEN WEIL-GARRIS BRANDT: A great pleasure.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You had walked by that building many times. What made you stop and take notice and begin to think that this was a Michelangelo?
MS. BRANDT: Well, it really was–that’s compressing a long process, because actually Clinton Institute of Fine Arts where I work is the next-door building to the French, so for more years than I care to tell you I’ve been working, walking past it everyday.
And so has everyone else, and I think that I would never have seen it if it hadn’t been that the French were playing host to a traveling exhibition of decorative art, and the designer of that show lighted it inside much more brilliantly, you can say violently, than the foyer of the building would normally have been lighted, and so I was in the rain, in the dark and walking home and pressing my nose against the glass door, the people were enjoying themselves inside, and there I saw that the fountain that is the centerpiece of the Rotunda that is the front hall of this building was crowned by a figure of a nude boy and I recognized–I didn’t recognize it as Michelangelo, I knew that it was an image otherwise only through a photograph that is a work that was sold in 1902 and then disappeared from view, but I have to say I wasn’t the only one.
My colleague and friend, James Draper, of the Metropolitan Museum, had earlier noticed that it was the missing work, but when he then went in to look at it, he saw it in the gloom, in the shadows, and so he really couldn’t see what was there and he let it–let it go.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But you recognized it was a missing work, but did you know that that work that was missing was a Michelangelo?
MS. BRANDT: No. In fact, I doubted it very much.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Somebody claimed it was.
MS. BRANDT: The Italian scholar who we really need to celebrate on this occasion, Alessandro Peronti, had taken the 1902 sales photograph and the attribution to Michelangelo and championed it, beginning the ’60s, saying we’ve got to find this work, and all of us, including me, didn’t think the photograph had anything to with Michelangelo, and if it hadn’t been that I was able to go in with my graduate student and photographer, Seth Jason, who has been very important in all of this, who lighted it properly for the first time, and we then proceeded to take photographs, it’s as I studied and very much against my better judgment, I began to realize that we were dealing with a very important work of art.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. We have some pictures of the statues now. Let’s look at them. These are not the pictures you took, I hasten to add, but let’s see what we can see.
MS. BRANDT: Well, actually we can only see a part of the figure. What’s left of it is 37 inches high. It’s lost its lower legs, although there’s much more than we can see in our photograph, it’s lost both arms.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What makes it–what do you see there that made you think it was a Michelangelo?
MS. BRANDT: Really a whole group of observations together. It’s not just one or a series of details. Ultimately, it’s how they all fit together, and there’s a kind of nervous energy and verve and mood in the way everything works, in the pose, in the way he turns his head with that little wild look that is very much like other early works we know, very early works by Michelangelo, and then there is a telltale marble carving technique that Michelangelo uses, and that one sees very clearly here.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Let’s now talk to Roger Rosenblatt, our essayist, about the effect of this. Why does this cause such a stir beyond art lovers?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: I think the appeal, Elizabeth, is of the treasure, the secret treasure discovered under your nose, the treasure in plain sight. In fiction, we see this in–there’s a movie called “Mirage” in which there’s hundreds of thousands of dollars that people are looking for and it’s in the stamps that somebody put on an envelope.
In the movie “Gaslight,” Charles Boyer is driving Ingrid Bergman crazy in order to find some diamonds which have been sewn into a ball gown, and it’s in plain sight. The idea of finding the 1946 copper penny, rather than the silver pennies, because most of them were silver that year, and that value, the idea of finding the stamp with the upside down biplane.
These don’t have the aesthetic treasure definition that a Michelangelo does but it’s the idea that something is in your house or in your–or on your walk or in your French embassy that you’ve been passing every day and has enormous value if you’d only looked closer.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So it really has two parts. It has the love for treasure, always–kids always want to find a treasure–treasure hunting–but it also has some aspect of having something that you may have thought rather plain, that had you looked closer you would have recognized how beautiful it is.
MR. ROSENBLATT: There’s a line from the musical “Gigi” where he finally realizes how beautiful this girl is and sings to her, “Have I been standing up too close or back too far?”. Prof. Brandt might have said that.
MS. BRANDT: Indeed, I might.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It is also that it’s Michelangelo, isn’t it? He has a special attraction to just about everybody.
MS. BRANDT: That’s true. Roger, I was thinking of the “Purloined Letter” too.
MR. ROSENBLATT: Yes. The “Purloined Letter” is the perfect example but the “Purloined Letter” only led to trouble, whereas this I think is going to lead only to joy.
MS. BRANDT: Well, I hope very much that you’re right.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But it is that it’s Michelangelo too, don’t you think?
MS. BRANDT: I think it is, and you know, this is not the first time that I’ve had this experience because during the 15 years of the cleaning of the Sistine Frescos by Michelangelo I was a member of the team and was on the scaffolding and also I had the chance and the need to explain about it to many different kinds of audiences, most of whom were not terribly interested in art and certainly not in the Renaissance and I discovered that there’s something deep inside us, even today that thinks of Michelangelo as the kind of sacred icon, even people who have never seen one.
MR. ROSENBLATT: Elizabeth.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yes.
MR. ROSENBLATT: May I ask Prof. Brandt a question.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Certainly.
MR. ROSENBLATT: Would this statue be as beautiful if it were not done by Michelangelo?
MS. BRANDT: That’s a wonderful question. And the answer is you bet your boots. In fact, if it were not by Michelangelo, and after all, this is just a proposal that I’m making, and ultimately the consensus of other specialists will build up–up to now, everybody has been just remarkably positive about it–but if it were not Michelangelo, for art historians, it might be even more fascinating because it would mean that there is an artist of the first importance whose young in the late 15th century who is absolutely wonderful about whom we know absolutely nothing except that he seems to have influenced the young Michelangelo.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Very briefly before we go, what will happen to Cupid now?
MS. BRANDT: This is really a diplomatic issue because there are two ways of looking at it. The French bought the house in the early 50s and so on this very straightforward level, it belongs to them. They have the right to do with it as they like.
On the other hand, the building is a landmarked monument, it’s the last masterpiece of our New York architect Stanford White, and the fountain on which the statute is is made up of all the pieces that Stanford White bought, himself, including our figure. He had them put together. He designed the fountain. The fountain is sunk at the midpoint of the whole architecture. It’s part of the architecture. Doesn’t it belong in New York?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you very much, Roger and Dr. Brandt.
MS. BRANDT: Thank you.